By Maxime Chouinard
There is a great interest in DIY shillelagh making, and lots of people ask questions about the subject in online groups. This is not an article about this subject per se, as I am no stick maker, though I already expressed my opinions as a practitioner of bataireacht and a teacher in this article.
No. Today, I want to talk about a related subject: wood. Specifically, two very similar ones: hawthorn and blackthorn. Not based on their intrinsic physical qualities though, but rather on the folklore and traditions that surround them. Ireland has a very vibrant folklore around wood, and some of them (yes hawthorne, I am looking at you!) are never mentioned as suitable materials for very good (at least if you believe in them) reasons. So let’s take a stroll in the wild and fascinating world of the invisible (cue Lorenna McKennit music)!
No, I am not starting with blackthorn because Hawthorn, May Tree, Whitethorn or Sceah Ghael is probably the wood that is the most curious of them all. On paper, a great wood for a fighting stick: very commonly found (farmers complain that it grows everywhere), very tough (farmers complain that it ruins their tools when cutting it) and overall really close to a blackthorn with its sharp and long thorns (farmer complains about that too… they really complain a lot). It seems like such a good choice for a cudgel people ask about it all the time. What’s not to love? Well, according to the Irish people of old, many things!
Hawthorn is great if you want to:
A) be cursed
B) anger some fairies
C) probably die
D) have bad stuff happen to your family
E) commit blasphemy
F) start a blood feud with someone
G) just have weird stuff happen to you
H) all of the above
Let’s see why. The May tree, as the name implies, is a symbol of springtime and is associated with magical powers and the little people. Stories abound on the misfortune of those who dared disturb a hawthorn, especially the fabled « lone tree », which is often associated with holy wells and doorways to the otherworld. People getting sick or unlucky after uprooting a tree, or bringing some of it home, or having mischief done to them. The flower is considered especially unlucky, with death resulting from bringing some in a home. It was commonly believed that Christ was crucified on a hawthorn, and that the crown of thorns was also made from that tree. Probably even more interesting to bataireacht, in places such as West Cork it was considered wrong to hit anyone with a stick of hawthorn as there was « temper » in the tree. If a stick was brought into the house, trouble would stay until it was removed.
Yet, the tree also had protective powers. People would plant them around the house to ward off evil witches, and they were also esteemed for influencing fertility. Even in recent times, the hawthorne was treated with particular respect. In 1982, workers at the De Lorean factory in Northern Ireland thought that the problems the company was having was because a lone tree had been felled during construction. The company had another planted with all due ceremony, which solved… well not much. In 1999, a highway in County Clare was diverted to avoid cutting down a sacred hawthorne tree, and you can find many other instances of this.
For all these reasons – and many, many more – hawthorn is never once mentioned as a suitable wood to make shillelaghs. You hear of blackthorn, oak, holly, ash, even crabapple, but hawthorn? Never. It would appear it was a taboo wood, no matter its inherent qualities. Which is too bad, as there are many where I live, but no blackthorns. But better stay on the good side of the little people!
Alright, let’s get to our old friend. Blackthorn, or Draighean, is in many ways the yin to the hawthorn’s yang. In fact, they are often referred to as sisters. While Hawthorn is mostly associated with Spring, fertility and many positive things, blackthorn is associated with war and winter. You would think that this would make it quite a bad wood to carry around, but this is actually the opposite.
Blackthorn was considered as a protection against the fairies as they regarded it very highly. It was said to be protected by the lunantishees or moon fairies who, at the best of time, were no friends to humans and would curse anyone foolish enough to cut down a blackthorn on the 11th of November (the original All Hallow’s Eve) or on the 11th of May (Original May Day). The best time to harvest the tree was during full moon, as the lunantishees would be away during that time. On a good day, the lunantishees would give inspiration to the musician or the poet as well as valour and strength to the warrior.
Cormac’s Glossary notes that the etymology of draighin comes from « the wretched one », and the tree is often associated with witches and mages, using it to fashion powerful magic wands and staves. The tree seems to have been perceived as a female tree, and associated with many mythical figures including queen Maeve, Morrigan; goddess of battle, strife and fertility, reigning over creation and destruction, and Cailleach; the crone of death and winter who would begin winter by striking the ground with her blackthorn staff. No doubt that all of these associations came to play a role in its negative perception in Christian Ireland, and to its status as the prefered material for making shillelaghs.
To conclude, all of this folklore is as good as your belief in it, but it explains the total absence of hawthorn, and the prevalence of blackthorn as fighting sticks. Both trees have great qualities, but only one of them won’t curse you!
If you wish to learn more about the fascinating folklore surrounding Irish trees, I suggest reading Ireland’s Trees: Myths, Legends & Folklore by Niall Mac Coitir.